Anella Navarro thought she was just going to breakfast with her mom and some family friends.
But when the 16-year-old walked into a restaurant in La Junta, she found her Swink High School art teacher, Max Cordova, and Congressman Ken Buck there instead. They told her she had won this year’s congressional art competition for Colorado’s 4th Congressional District.
“I was really surprised and I was at a loss of words. And I just kept repeating, ‘Thank you,’” she recalled.
Each year since 1982, students from across the country have vied to have their artwork hang in the U.S. Capitol complex for a year. Each House district gets to pick one, usually relying on a local panel to make the selection. It’s part of the Congressional Art Competition.
Anella’s watercolor landscape has purple mountains; red, orange and evergreen trees; and blue lake waters. While it doesn’t depict an iconic Colorado mountain, it feels iconically Coloradan.
After she submitted the painting, she didn’t really dwell on her chance of getting chosen. It was left to her mother, Cherea Navarro, who “connived” with Anella’s art teacher to surprise her with the news that her piece was selected.
“I did the whole embarrassing mom thing and cried and all of that,” she said.
Cherea gives art teacher Cordova a lot of credit. He fought hard to get Annella into the competition after some entry snafus and Cherea said he's always encouraged Anella’s interest in art in the small rural school where the graduating class averages around 30 kids.
“There's not a lot of funding and things available here. So. he goes out and buys extra art supplies. He makes sure that she has certain projects that she can work on because she's been talented for years, but she's very humble about her work,” she explained.
A portrait of a friend and a photograph of wildfire smoke
In Boulder, high schooler Margaux Helson was checking her email in class when she saw the message that her piece was selected for Rep. Joe Neguse’s 2nd Congressional District.
She texted her mom to let her know, because it was her mom that found out about the competition and encouraged her to apply, but it took awhile for the news to really sink in
“It's just so exciting to know that people who have such impactful jobs will get to look at my friend’s face and look at my work,” she said. “It's kind of fun to think, oh, who's going to stop by and, like, take a look at it and, you know, study it.”
For her piece Margaux took a candid photo of her friend, Hannah, and turned it into a sketch portrait.
She said Hannah is also excited to know her portrait will be hanging in the Capitol.
Quintin Babcock got a nudge to apply for the contest from his Cherokee Trail High School art teacher. His photo, "Colorado Through the Smoke," was selected the winner for Representative Jason Crow’s 6th Congressional District.
Quintin got inspired to take the shot of Denver and the mountains silhouetted under a smoky sunset during a walk last summer with his mom to a nearby hill in Aurora.
“It was so smoky. It was like super orange and we decided to go back the next day and took a bunch of photos of it,” he said.
The rising senior admits he had no expectation of winning, especially after checking out the competition in his district. Still, in a year where much of Colorado burned, Quintin’s photo was timely and captured the scale of the problem.
But he stressed he didn’t submit the work to send a political message; rather, “it seemed to really represent the state. So that's why I entered this one.”
Sending a message, and representing Colorado
Rohanna Hasselkus, whose work will represent CO-1, does hope to send a message with her painting.
The junior at the Denver School of the Arts has been eyeing this competition since the 8th grade. This was her first time entering and she went in knowing the theme she wanted to focus on: language.
“My mother's English and my father's Mexican,” she said. Growing up in a bilingual household, “language is always very important to me. So sharing this passion for language was something I wanted to do.”
Rohanna’s painting depicts a crowd of people whose mouths are covered with tape. Written on the tape are the words, “You're Americans, speak English.”
She hopes it causes lawmakers walking between their offices and the capitol to stop and think.
“Really what this is supposed to speak about is how this country has a great lingual diversity, yet sometimes we try to repress it,” she explained. “I think we should actually embrace our lingual diversity because it makes us stronger as a culture.”
Anella Navarro from Swink has a simpler wish for those passing by her painting. “I just hope that it represents Colorado really well, and they can enjoy the beauty of it.”
Other winners this year include Evita Carrasco of White Ridge High School for Rep. Ed Perlmutter’s district; David Kim from the Vanguard School in Colorado Springs for Rep. Doug Lamborn’s district; and Arianna Woodford from Centennial High School in Pueblo for Rep. Lauren Boebert’s District.
They’ll all be getting trips to Washington, D.C., to hopefully see their pieces in person in the Capitol. That’s something last year’s students didn’t get to experience. The U.S. Capitol complex has been closed to the public since the pandemic started last March.
The seven pieces from Colorado, along with visual artwork from districts in the other states and participating territories, are expected to be displayed starting in September.
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